Joe Foy stands on a dusty logging road overlooking a fresh clearcut in the Chehalis River watershed in southwest B.C. Documenting clearcuts is something Foy does regularly as protected areas campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, a non-profit conservation group. But on this hot, tinder-dry Sunday afternoon in July, Foy is having trouble accessing the newly logged block, which lies within a wildlife habitat area for the endangered spotted owl.
Someone is firing a gun nearby. Crack. Crack. Crack. Foy ducks behind a thin fringe of bushes and scrubby saplings and launches a small drone.
Ten minutes earlier, Foy had beeped the horn of his truck as he drove towards the clearcut along a logging road at the edge of a steep slope. But the shots zinged closer and closer. He was forced to turn around, parking a short distance away in a clearing in the wildlife area littered with shiny spent bullets, empty beer cans and bullet-holed metal road signs poking out of a pile of earth.
Foy wants to take photographs and drone footage of three new clearcuts — known as block CH829 — which were recently approved by the B.C. government in the spotted owl wildlife habitat area in the Fraser Valley. Wildlife habitat areas are mapped areas the B.C. government designates to conserve important wildlife habitat, such as forests with trees large enough for the spotted owl to nest and hatch its young or second-growth forests that will become suitable habitat.
An estimated 1,000 adult northern spotted owls once lived in old-growth cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock rainforests in southwest B.C. Following decades of industrial logging, only one spotted owl remains in Canada’s wild, in an undisclosed location in a valley near the Fraser Canyon. About 30 spotted owls live at a B.C. government-funded breeding centre, where staff hatch eggs in incubators and feed the owls euthanized mice and rats in the hopes of releasing captive-born individuals into the wild.
When the breeding centre opened 16 years ago, the B.C. government said it would release juvenile spotted owls to augment the dwindling wild population. The first release took place last summer, when three males hatched at the centre were set free. One suffered an injury and was brought back into captivity and the other two died during the winter.
In June, the Wilderness Committee launched a lawsuit to try to save spotted owl critical habitat from logging. Foy wants to collect more information to share with the public about the reasons for the lawsuit. But the invisible shooter seemingly won’t allow Foy, clearly visible in a bright orange shirt, to move any closer to the clearcut and now he’s worried they’re trying to hit his drone.
Crack. Crack. Crack. The shots are louder, closer. Foy curses. It’s like a scene from a Wild West shootout, as the sound of gunfire from multiple shooters in the spotted owl wildlife habitat area echoes off steep canyon walls. They’re not there to hunt but to practise their aim, blasting away at stacked beer cans and other targets.
“What’s apparent here today is that we need a different agency looking after this landscape,” Foy says as he packs up his drone and retreats up the logging road. “The people that run this landscape need to be fired. This is absolutely bizarre.”
That evening, Foy does some sleuthing. He discovers target shooting in the Chehalis spotted owl wildlife habitat area is perfectly legal. A 2017 change in provincial regulations restricted shooting on the boundaries of the 11,950-hectare habitat area, but not within it. The changes are mapped out on a website called Reliable Gun Vancouver.
The regulations effectively funnel recreational shooters along a well-travelled logging road easily accessible from a highway, sending them past the restricted areas and into the Chehalis wildlife habitat area, created more than a decade ago. “Not only are we getting the clearcuts, the province has re-directed the target shooters to the areas managed for spotted owl in the Fraser Valley,” says Foy, who has led the Wilderness Committee’s campaign to protect the spotted owl for almost two decades.
Shooters are permitted to fire away to their heart’s content, even though the BC Wildfire Service says target shooting can cause sparks that start wildfires and the province is experiencing the second-worst wildfire season in recorded history. In June, a wildfire with an unknown cause charred 63 hectares in a new clearcut and the surrounding forest in the Chehalis wildlife habitat area, about a two-hour drive east of Vancouver.
It’s also legal to clearcut in some of the wildlife habitat area. Within the wildlife area are logging zones the B.C. government calls “managed future habitat areas” for spotted owls. One fresh clearcut lies in an area that provided suitable foraging habitat for the spotted owl, which preys mainly on flying squirrels and bushy-tailed woodrats. The provincial government agency BC Timber Sales auctioned off the three fresh clearcuts in a block of second-growth forest, while two proposed clearcuts nearby are pending approval. Foy says the government has also approved seven more cutblocks in the wildlife habitat area.
“It’s the logging that really continues to shock me,” Foy says. “And the words. When I go on the provincial site and read the rationale … what the hell? It’s like living in a propaganda world. This is so far from the truth. Logging for ‘future habitat’ for spotted owl? ‘Managing’ these wildlife habitat areas for spotted owl? Are you kidding me?”
The latest spotted owl intrigue comes as Ottawa falls under increasing pressure to protect wildlife after Canada signed a landmark global agreement committing to recover at-risk species and protect biodiversity. More than 5,000 wild species are at some risk of extinction in Canada, with close to 900, including the spotted owl, considered to be critically imperilled. Worldwide, almost one million species face extinction, many within decades, as scientists warn we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event. Unlike previous mass extinctions, including one caused by an asteroid striking Earth that wiped out the dinosaurs, human activity is the culprit.
More than 1,800 species are at risk of provincial or global extinction in B.C., the province with the most biodiversity — the greatest variety of species, genes and ecosystems. But despite promises from the BC NDP government, the province still lacks stand-alone endangered species legislation. Spotted owls aren’t protected in B.C., the only place in Canada where they’ve ever been found. So the environmental law charity Ecojustice, acting on behalf of the Wilderness Committee, is hoping to use a tool in the federal Species At Risk Act to save the spotted owl and protect its critical habitat so the species can be reintroduced to the wild.
Under the Species At Risk Act, the federal government can step in to protect an endangered species like the spotted owl if it believes there are imminent threats to its survival and recovery. One tool it can use is an emergency order, which would give Ottawa the power to make decisions about provincial land, such as whether to issue logging permits in spotted owl wildlife habitat areas and other critical habitat for the species.
Such action is rare. Unwilling to irk the provinces, the federal government has only issued emergency orders twice in the 20-year history of the Species At Risk Act: once to protect the greater sage grouse in Alberta and Saskatchewan and once to protect the western chorus frog in Quebec.
Last fall Ecojustice, acting on behalf of the Wilderness Committee, petitioned the federal government to issue an emergency order to protect the spotted owl and its critical habitat. In February, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, citing imminent threats to the spotted owl’s survival and recovery, said he would recommend cabinet issue the order. Guilbeault determined 2,500 hectares of habitat necessary for the owl’s recovery was at risk of being logged within the year.
But the order never came. Ecojustice surmised Guilbeault hadn’t made the recommendation to cabinet, whose deliberations are confidential. “As far as we know, there’s been no recommendation,” Ecojustice lawyer Andhra Azevedo told The Narwhal.
In June, Ecojustice, acting on behalf of Wilderness Committee, announced it is taking the federal government to court to force Guilbeault to recommend that cabinet issue the emergency order. Given the acute situation, Ecojustice requested an expedited timeline for a hearing. Canada agreed, and the hearing could be held as early as August. “We can try and make sure that any action taken to recover the spotted owl is actually being taken with the urgency that is required,” Azevedo says.
The lawsuit comes after the B.C. government scuttled a federal plan to designate large swaths of core critical habitat for the spotted owl, easing the way for imminent old-growth logging in areas such as the Teapot Valley, where the Wilderness Committee found flagging tape demarcating planned new clearcuts and a planned logging road.
Almost 50 per cent of the owl’s core critical habitat — habitat that federal biologists deemed necessary for survival and recovery — was quietly removed from federal maps between 2021 and 2023 following negotiations with the province, The Narwhal learned earlier this year through a freedom of information request. The maps were included in a long overdue “amended recovery strategy” for the spotted owl, released in January for public comment and not yet finalized. The Chehalis spotted owl wildlife habitat area remained on the maps as core critical habitat.
Complicating matters, the federal government is also responsible for the destruction of habitat scientists say is necessary for the spotted owl’s survival and recovery. The federally owned Trans Mountain pipeline cut through a spotted owl wildlife habitat area near Hope; the B.C. government approved two dozen new cutblocks for the pipeline in spotted owl habitat.
In an emailed response to questions, Environment and Climate Change Canada media spokesperson Samantha Bayard said the government is aware of the Ecojustice application and is not in a position to comment on the case while the matter is before the courts. Bayard said the federal government can’t comment on shooting in the Chehalis spotted owl wildlife habitat area because it falls under provincial jurisdiction.
The Narwhal asked to interview someone in the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship but the request was not approved. The B.C. government said it was working on an emailed statement instead, but The Narwhal did not receive a response prior to publication.
“Right now, under the Species At Risk Act, the spotted owl is deemed to be recoverable,” Foy says. “We have a [federal] minister saying if this kind of logging in critical habitat continues, it puts the recovery in danger. That is a very powerful statement.”
After Foy leaves the area where the shooter blocks his access to the clearcut, he drives along a logging road spur to a wildlife habitat area cutblock, proposed by BC Timber Sales, that awaits approval. Trees that will become suitable nesting habitat for the spotted owl within decades are marked with orange spray paint — it’s not clear if they will be logged or left standing as solitary figures in a future clearcut — while yellow flagging tape wraps around culturally modified cedars, whose bark was stripped by First Nations for clothing and other necessities.
The largest trees in the planned cutblock could be about 80-years-old, according to Foy: pipsqueaks compared to the ancient cedar and Douglas fir trees found in the canyons before European settlement and industrial logging. The forest proposed for the chopping block is shady and cool. Moss clings to tree branches and ferns and salal unfurl a green carpet over the uneven ground. If left alone, Foy says the forest will provide suitable habitat for the spotted owl in about 40 years.
To Foy, the Chehalis wildlife habitat area reflects the federal vision for the spotted owl — to connect the scattered remnants of old-growth rainforests with younger forests that will become suitable habitat in a few decades, helping juvenile owls to safely disperse. “What the federal plan seeks to do is to start to heal the highly fragmented aspect of this forest,” he says. “And what the province has done is continue to issue permits to further fragment it.”
In a May news release about the death of the two released spotted owls, B.C. Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen said the provincial government and its partners are “doing everything we can” to help spotted owls recover. “The loss of these two spotted owls is certainly unfortunate, and it will help us learn more about raising and releasing spotted owls and how to guide the recovery of this species,” Cullen stated. “We remain confident in our overall approach and optimistic that we’ll see more positive results in the years to come.”
Foy doesn’t share the minister’s confidence. He scoffs at the B.C. government’s repeated claim it has set aside enough habitat for 250 spotted owls, pointing to the owl’s demise as proof it is insufficient. “In this landscape, logging has already gone way too far.”
The gunfire starts up again, sounding like nearby fireworks — crack-crack-crack, crack-crack-crack — and Foy is momentarily distracted. Then he poses a question about the B.C. government’s untested plan to hatch spotted owls and release them into small, fragmented pockets of remaining old-growth forest. At the same time, he points out, the government continues to sanction clear cutting in the Chehalis wildlife habitat area and other core critical habitat for the species: “Is the only hope for these creatures some kind of weird game farm situation?”
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